Stephane Wrembel: Music As 'A Question Of Life And Death' | KUER 90.1

Stephane Wrembel: Music As 'A Question Of Life And Death'

Jul 1, 2012
Originally published on July 1, 2012 6:32 am

If you're a moviegoer, there's a good chance you'll recognize Stephane Wrembel's sound, if not his name.

The oh-so-French guitar heard throughout Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is the work of the Parisian-born musician. Wrembel says he gleaned his style of playing from the musicians at a Gypsy camp in the French countryside, which he would visit several times a week growing up.

"Music, for the Gypsies, is a question of life and death," he tells NPR's David Greene. "It's a way to communicate with the world. It's a way to be one with the universe. It's not like I sit and I have fun or I have no fun; there's no concept like that. Music is vital. It's like eating."

One can't listen to Wrembel's music without thinking of the most famous Gypsy musician of them all, the Belgian jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

"I listened to my first Django record, as a musician, when I was 19 or 20 — and I thought it was completely magic," Wrembel says. "I heard notes that I never heard before. There was a complete, different, hidden language. And this is their way of communicating; it's a very subtle way, and a very poetic way, and a very spiritual way to communicate with each other with music."

In the full audio version of this interview aired on Weekend Edition Sunday, Stephane Wrembel discusses his new album, Origins, and demonstrates some of the music that has inspired his guitar playing.

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Stephane Wrembel. You might not know that name off the top of your head. But if you're a moviegoer, there's a good chance you'll recognize his sound.


GREENE: The oh-so-French guitar heard throughout Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" is the work of Parisian-born Stephane Wrembel. He has a new album called "Origins" and he's currently on a U.S. tour. And he kindly stopped by to see us here in NPR's Studio 4A.

Stephane, welcome to our program.


GREENE: So, one thing that caught me from your biography is that you learned this craft - your guitar playing from gypsies in the French countryside when you were growing up?

WREMBEL: Yes, I spent like six, seven years going like a few times a week to a gypsy camp near Paris. But yeah, we would go and arrive in the morning. The kids would surround all the car and be like, hey, Stephane, how you doing?


WREMBEL: And then we would go next to the trailers and they would have chairs for us, we would sit down and start playing, and we'd play until nighttime - nonstop.


WREMBEL: You know, music for the gypsies is a question of life and death. It's a way to communicate with the world. It's a way to be one with the universe. It's not like I sit and I have fun or I have no fun; there's no concept like that. Music is vital. It's like eating.


GREENE: I want to dig a little deeper because I don't think I realized that music was so vitally important to the gypsy community. Why is that?

WREMBEL: I have no idea. There are things they are just what they are, you know? Like, if you go to Cuba, dancing and playing music and chanting is natural for people. They just do it, you know. Same thing in Ireland. There are countries like that where music takes such a vital place in the everyday life. I mean, when you listen to flamenco and you see the complexity of the guitar playing, you're wondering like how can you invent such a thing with complex rhythms and complex singing and complex guitar playing? And the same thing with Django's music, you know. It really takes a higher state of mind to like come up with like this way of manipulating the instrument.

GREENE: And you said Django. It's Django Reinhardt who really took this gypsy music and made it famous, in the early 20th century.

WREMBEL: Oh, there's - no, no. Invented. Like, the gypsies play Django Reinhardt style. That's the only name I can find for it, is Django's music, you know. 'Cause you learn from Django, so you learn Django's music.

GREENE: And what makes it so special, I guess? And what drew you to it so passionately?

WREMBEL: So I listened to my first Django record, as a musician, when I was 19 or 20 or something like that. And I thought it was completely magic.


WREMBEL: I heard notes that I never heard before. There was like a complete, different hidden language. And this is their way of communicating; it's a very subtle way, and a very poetic way, and a very spiritual way to communicate with each other with music.

GREENE: You know, you speak about getting away from the words and going off into somewhere else, like the universe. That's a perfect moment for me to ask you about one of the songs on your new album, which is "Voyager."

WREMBEL: Yeah, "Voyager" is a song I composed for Carl Sagan...

GREENE: Who, of course, launched the spacecraft, the Voyager in 1977.

WREMBEL: Yeah, so I composed that song for him with that image of Voyager crossing the universe right now.

GREENE: Well, you have your guitar with us. Is there a way to talk me through a few notes of that song, and then we can hear a little bit of the final product?

WREMBEL: Yeah. The way I composed it, so I had this image of the spacecraft and I came up with like a riff and like a beat that's in 6/8, which usually is used in African music. And that I really like, so the beat is like that.


WREMBEL: So I had that beat in mind and I had that piece of melody...


WREMBEL: I really see it like a science fiction movie. Like, it's like a long melody but it has to me like this color, you know of the computers with those big lights and stuff in like "Star Trek."


GREENE: It sounds like when you got to New York City, I guess a decade ago, you were doing a lot of roaming, trying to find places to play. What was that like and how did you succeed?

WREMBEL: Well, I was like, OK, to hit New York I'm going to go back to my basics. I have that craft of Django Reinhardt that no one has in the U.S., so I got to play with that. And I'm French, so I have to hit the French community. Went to New York, I was crashing at a friend's place. I went on her computer and I did a list of all the French restaurants in New York. And I called them one by one...

GREENE: Just cold calling them, saying, hi, I'm Stephane and I'm looking to see if you play live music in this...

WREMBEL: Yeah, not even like I was like, hi, do you have live music. They were saying no or yes, you know. If they would say, Yes, I would say OK, who's the manager? And then I would go with my rhythm player. So we did like a few and we got hired in all of them right away.

GREENE: Wow, you are giving hope to I'm sure tons and tons of people out there listening who are in their younger years and are like, I want to go to New York and try a music career. I can just cold-call bars. They're saying this guy did, I can do it now. (Laughing)

WREMBEL: Yeah. To me, it was very important was to not have a job. I never had a job. Instead of going to a restaurant and work eight hours, and then go and try to find a gig, then I understood that if you want to make a living as a musician, you got to make a living as a musician.

GREENE: I guess you have to have a little bit of money to get started. Or else you have to take one of those serving jobs at a restaurant, to keep yourself going.

WREMBEL: I don't know. When I arrived in New York, I had $300 in my pocket and nothing. I went there and I was like I'm going to climb up that mountain. I'm going to conquer New York.


GREENE: Woody Allen, your music has now been in two Woody Allen movies. What is the marriage between you and Woody Allen? Why is your music so perfect for his films?

WREMBEL: It's very funny because when I landed in Boston, the next day the first thing I did was try to go on Yahoo Groups and trying to see how I could contact Woody Allen.

GREENE: Really, you had gotten here and you were determined...

WREMBEL: Oh, yeah. That was like that was my first mission because I was a big Woody Allen fan. And I was a big fan of the music also that he put in his movies. And I knew that my way of composing and the playing, it would fit perfectly. But there was no way I could reach him. You know? So years got by and one of my CDs ended up in his roster of songs, and he chose one of my songs for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."


GREENE: Tell us a little bit more about the guitar and kind of the sound that you create.

WREMBEL: So, there is something very important that I learned with the gypsy technique. It's actually very close to like classical technique on piano, like the strings are resonating sympathetically. And usually when I heard other guitar players, and when I learned to play, you use a technique that muffle the strings because it has actually a refusal of that sympathetic resonation. So, for example, if I do that and I muffle the strings or like...


WREMBEL: And now, with the gypsy technique, I don't muffle the strings and I'm going to let the guitar resonate with it. I don't know if we can hear it on the radio but...


WREMBEL: So, when I do that...


WREMBEL:'s actually this note...


WREMBEL: ...that sustains...


WREMBEL: ...and go into this one so you get like all these notes like mushing together and you get that sense of reverberation. Or like you can create a tension.


GREENE: You're almost allowing one not to still be standing there as the next one comes in, in a way it sounds like.

WREMBEL: Exactly, you don't really think about it. When I do that...


WREMBEL: ...I don't think OK, A, B and this one. No, it's not like that. You just do it and you just let your mind go.


WREMBEL: And you can hear the guitar going, you know. So, it's like a way to be in communion with the guitar.

GREENE: Well, I want you to do me one favor. Think of a song on the new album, "Origins," that you sort of want us to finish with. And I'll let you play the first, you know, few notes or whatever you'd be up for playing. And then we'll hear the finish product.

But first, I'll say to Stephane Wrembel, thank you so much for stopping in. This has been a real pleasure.

WREMBEL: Thank you very much.

So, I'm going to play a few notes from my composition "Tsunami."


WREMBEL: It's inspired by actually the disaster that happened last year in Japan. I had my guitar in my hands and I came up with a series of chords and a melody, like, right away. And that song was born in a few minutes.

GREENE: All right. Well, Stephane Wremble, thank you and take it away.

WREMBEL: Thank you.


GREENE: And before we end this hour, we'd like to tell you that the person who normally hosts this program, my friend, Rachel Martin, has a new member in her family. Join all of us in saying hello to newborn, Wyatt. He's a healthy little bundle of joy, weighing in at seven pounds, 13 ounces. So heartfelt congratulations to Wyatt, to his mom Rachel Martin, and dad Luke.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "TSUNAMI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.